Back in 1984, a wayward Eagle and a Heartbreaker got together to create one of the most enduring and infectious tunes of that era, "The Boys of Summer." Don Henley (formerly of The Eagles) and Mike Campbell, guitarist extraordinaire (and so much more) for Tom Petty's band gave us a song that, although genuinely catchy and up-tempo, bears a very tangible darker quality, a reflection on a better time, and the realization that it wasn't what it maybe should've been, or could've been.
Such is the story of the 2012 summer movie season. Since at least the mid-1980s (right around the time when Don Henley's tune hit the charts), Hollywood has converged on the summer months as a time to deluge the movie-going public with the biggest and (hopefully) best escapist entertainment that it has to offer. From May through mid-August, massive cinema spectacles made up of movie stars, explosions, and the best visual effects money can buy (not necessarily in that order) are new every weekend.
For many veteran film critics, this is the reason for their jadedness. Franchises run amok, awash in brainless razzle-dazzle, is again and again affirmed by audiences as something that they cannot get enough of. As a result, the more unique and refreshing auteur-driven cinema tends to get bulldozed off the radar, if it ever manages to happen at all.
At least, that's the popular and simple version of how it goes down. It's also far less accurate than such critics ever care to admit. One needn't look all that closely at a few of the choice films of any given summer to see that a great deal of thought and care routinely goes into even these cash-vacuuming studio tent poles. (Men in Black, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Toy Story 3 and The Dark Knight are just a few examples - all of which were evoked with this summer's crop.) Commerce is more present than ever on this scene, but art is not absolutely not absent.
Seeing how the films of this summer, so many of them colorful and loud but with a palpable dark undercurrent, operated in a tonal manner reflective of "The Boys of Summer," I've opted to utilize Henley's song as the soundtrack for this Summer Movie Recap article. After all, not to be gender-centric, but seeing how so many of these movies are male-skewing testosterone jamborees directed by male filmmakers (in this case, even one that was supposed to be helmed by a woman, Pixar's Brave, ended up being finished by a man), it isn't off-base to analogize them as our current Boys of Summer.
Nobody on the road
Nobody on the beach
Box office numbers are down in record numbers, despite the few enormous blockbusters that summer granted (The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises). The conventional wisdom has always been that huge, behemoth movies that draw a less common kind of repeat theatrical viewing and lure less frequent filmgoers to the theaters are ultimately good for the other, less visible films, no doubt due to some combination of the exposure that those films receive in the theater itself (signage, trailers, etc.) and the entrancing magic of simply Going To The Movies. (Someone who goes out to see only Batman may be enticed by a trailer for Bourne, which he was previously unaware of.) Is this no longer the case? It appears so. Perhaps once again, the long running effects of the economic downturn are showing us that conventional wisdom is not as conventional as we'd care to believe. Or, maybe this summer's crop of films simply wasn't up to snuff. Let's continue the song:
I feel it in the air
The summer's out of reach
For many, there was only one sure thing this summer movie season: Christopher Nolan's promising conclusion to his pulsatingly popular real world-centric Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises. When the film finally hit in late July, it hit with an altogether unexpected bang: a mass shooting tragedy during a midnight premiere in Aurora, Colorado. The morning the news broke, I responded with an emotionally charged and quickly dashed-off commentary piece, posted at ZekeFilm. That well-received piece, in quick retrospect, proved to have its share of media-driven inaccuracies (for instance, I inadvertently perpetuated an untruth that the shooter's rampage was mimicking a scene in The Dark Knight Rises) and regretfully, although I plead to the contrary in the piece itself, I linked the film to the shooting by calling my commentary "The Dark Knight Tragedy."
Thankfully, the general public was not scared away from seeing The Dark Knight Rises, as the film did go on to be one of great box office successes of the year (to the surprise of no one, pre-tragedy), even if it didn't quite measure up to 2008's The Dark Knight, or its closest summer competition, The Avengers. I had grave doubts that the public would be able to disassociate the film from the attack, assuming that certain lines and instances of the movie would always evoke what happened in that theater in Colorado. But in this case, I'm happy to be shown otherwise. On it's own capable feet, The Dark Knight Rises shows us a humanitarian right-of-center surge of justice and catharsis. Bane may not be the best villain of the series, and maybe there was too much of him and too little of Batman, but all in all, the film rose up and satisfied most every expectation.
Empty lake, empty streets
The sun goes down alone
Sunny Hawaii never was so lonely at the box office. Thanks for nothing, Battleship.
I'm driving by your house
Though I know you're not home
I didn't see The Bourne Legacy, only because I was behind on seeing a few of the other Bourne movies, which starred Matt Damon. This new one, however, does not. Naturally for that reason alone, it has its detractors. But not all have come out against this latest installment. No, Matt Damon, who played the memory-impaired super-spy done wrong, Jason Bourne, is not home this time, and neither is director Paul Greengrass, who's sure-handed hyper-kinetic flair made the second and third films of the series so eye-opening. But by certain accounts, newcomer Jeremy Renner's tale is not altogether dismissible. Admittedly, the whole endeavor looks like a modern day Trail of the Pink Panther, evoking those painful Clouseau-free films made so close to the death of the franchise-defining star Peter Sellers. But I suppose I'll find out the truth when I catch up with it at home.
But I can see you
Your brown skin shining in the sun
You got your hair combed back and your
Sunglasses on baby
Men in Black 3 is another one that I ended up skipping, due to having never bothered with its predecessor, the astutely titled Men in Black II (2002). Stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones return yet again, this time in an alien-filled time-travel caper that was genuinely well-received by the few who did bother with it. The apathetic reception of MIB3 is further proof that Hollywood's desperate modus operandi of resuscitating fondly remembered franchises of the past 20 years, original key talent intact ("doing it right"), is in no way going to stir collective interest the way the originals once did. (Other recent flops of this ilk include the otherwise competent Scream 4 and the overcooked American Reunion. Only slightly further back, though Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Toy Story 3 proved too big to fail.) The lesson? If you're going to stage a comeback, you can't just be big - you have to be legendary.
I can tell you my love for you will still be strong
After the boys of summer, have gone
Ted, from the mind and hand of "Family Guy" creator Seth McFarlane, did remarkably well with the knucklehead audience it courted. This foul-mouthed teddy bear tale took off something fierce, although again, I couldn't get myself to go.
I never will forget those nights
I wonder if it was a dream
Total Recall, an unfairly dismissed but still highly imperfect large scale brain-bender, stumbles when it totally recalls another movie ... 1990's Total Recall. As the title details, this is more of a remake of the Arnold Schwarzenegger original than an adaptation of that film's Philip K. Dick source material. Clearly, with its murkier, intensified seriousness and earthbound action, this Colin Farrell starrer intended to do for the fondly-remembered Paul Verhoeven original what Philip Kaufman's 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake did for its 1956 namesake. As Ah-nold might say, close but no cigar. This is not one that will be remembered, but it is a better try than it was given credit for.
Remember how you made me crazy
Remember how I made you scream
Prometheus, marketed as an is-it-or-isn't-it high falutin' prequel to 1979's sci-fi/horror classic Alien (helmed by the same visionary director, nonetheless), was one of the most highly anticipated films of the summer. It also proved to be a monumental letdown. But, it was a profound letdown; a film of frustrating 3D beauty the likes of which we've never been let down by before. The first half, with its breathtaking visual splendor and origins-of-life questioning, presents Prometheus as a masterpiece in the making. The second half, however, sees that promise dashed on the H.R.Giger-rendered spiky cave rocks with a storytelling jumble of unexplained violence, rickety dread, and utter abandonment of fundamental cohesion. Once again, the celebrated Ridley Scott fails to live up to his own reputation, as this long-gestating mishmash falls like a house of cards right before our eyes, in some of the best 3D we've ever seen. It's enough to make a film buff crazy. For all the anticipation that came along with Prometheus - both before and during the film - its ultimate legacy will the debate it leaves us with as we struggle to determine its relevance, message, and success. Whatever else it may be, Prometheus is one of the biggest stories of the summer movie season.
Now I don't understand
What happened to our love
But babe I'm gonna get you back
I'm gonna show you what I'm made of
Pixar's Brave is noteworthy for offering up the studio's first female star, a Scottish princess with intensely red flowing hair, and a lot of it. Also, she's an archer worthy of Avenger Hawkeye or Katniss from The Hunger Games. At least, that's what I gather from the trailer and word of mouth. Thanks to scheduling conflicts, I had to miss the press screenings for this one, and have yet to catch up with it. That, however, has not kept my four-year-old daughter away (thank you, grandparents!), so despite having not actually seen it, I nonetheless know far more about Brave than I probably should. Remembering back to the day she saw the film (it's opening weekend), I read online reports of small children having to be removed from theaters due to scary bears in the movie. Naturally, as a parent, this was a concern for my daughter.
And then she came home, piled onto my lap in her sparkly princess dress, and proceeded to utterly mock my concern as only a four year old can. "There were scawwwwey bears in it!! SCARWWEY BEEAARS in it! SQUAREY BEEEEE-ARZZ!! Oooooo!!!," she detailed, with an unforgettable mischievous smirk. I hadn't even mentioned the bears. So much for any cinematic scarring for this kid's psyche. Meanwhile, I come to find out that her slightly older cousin, usually a stonewall to such frightful content, was legitimately not only disturbed by the "scarwwey beeaars," but also by my daughter's laughing response to them. Whether either kid absorbed the films supposedly empowering message for girls, or its mother/daughter drama (a relationship dynamic all-too-ignored in cinema in general, where father/son exploration is king), I do not know, but they did have a good time. My wife and I are still desperately planning to catch Brave in the theater, bear traps in hand.
I can see you Your brown skin shining in the sun
I see you walking real slow
Smiling at everyone
You may've heard about how the low budgeted Magic Mike has become one of the biggest profit generators of the year. Unfortunately for the producers, it's all in one dollar bills. ZING! But seriously, the film is deceptive, making it worthy of a closer look (although I maintain that leering is inappropriate, and touching is not allowed). It's far more clever than many realize, as this rambling character study disguised as a gyrating beefcake fest for women looking to objectify hunky dudes is actually fairly underhanded; a subversionary and unabashedly "artsy" film.
Effectively marketed (and apparently fully functional) as a ladies night out, Channing Tatum drool-fest, Magic Mike actually succeeds as an of-the-moment assessment of the American Dream (as utterly subjective as that is). Even for a dyed-in-the-wool straight arrow like myself, I found this latest film by the shockingly prolific director Steven Soderbergh (Contagion, Haywire, and now this - three decent movies in less than a year ... not bad at all for a guy who is supposedly retiring from movie-making!) to be noteworthy in its own modest way. It's both a bona fide auteur indulgence and, thanks to kooky scene-stealer Matthew McConaughey and an eleventh hour romantic pay-off, a mainstream thoroughbred that's poised to keep circling the track. Due to the nature of its content (the world of male strippers), I can't recommend Magic Mike for all adults. As with all movies, it's important to know your stumbling blocks, and take them seriously. But for those like myself who continue to be fascinated by the work of Steven Soderbergh, this is more The Informant! than Ocean's Thirteen.
I can tell you my love for you will still be strong
After the boys of summer, have gone
Spider-Man, I'll always love you like the favorite super hero you are to me, but your last movie just didn't do it. Yes, we all know things are dark all over, and there have certainly been a number of genuinely dark Spidey comic book stories over the years that have been nonetheless great. But Marc Webb's film The Amazing Spider-Man was, in the end, simply copping the dark gravity (and format) of Nolan's Batman Begins. It's a reboot desperate for real world cred. Real world gravitas laid over legendary comic book material worked brilliantly for Nolan with his trilogy, but the overlong and uneven Amazing Spider-Man only proves Nolan's ability is all the more unique, his films all the more difficult. Sure, this Spidey flick has it's moments of satisfying wonder, but for every one of those, it bears down with an oppressively dull stretch, leaving one to ask why Andrew Garfield is being so spastic in his portrayal of what an isolated American teenager is like, and also, what happened to the bulk of Spidey's classic supporting cast, the best in all of comics? Ah well. It wasn't all bad, just not the Spidey I know and love. I for one don't go to super hero movies looking for real-world plausibility. Yes, I, like most anyone, demand that they work on their own terms. But those terms can be colorful ... fantastic ... otherworldly. For those qualities, look no further than the Marvel property that preceded this one in theaters ...
Out on the road today
I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac
If the mainstream big budget super hero film is the Cadillac (familiar, reliable, maybe a bit dull from a distance), then Avengers filmmaker Joss Whedon's vivacious streak is the Deadhead sticker someone slapped on it. The analogy breaks down quickly though, since Henley (and later the Ataris, when it became a Black Flag sticker - same idea, different generation) is making a point about "The Big Chill" - former hippies having become yuppies, but trying to hold onto a small portion of their former ideology. With Whedon and The Avengers, this is certainly not the case. Although the film was hyped and built up in a groundbreaking way (using other separate but vaguely related movies to set the stage and create anticipation over the course of several years), it still managed to satisfy on a Whedon-esque level while also fulfilling all of it's play-it-safe obligations to Marvel Studios. When it comes down to it, it's about super heroes versus aliens; that's it. But that's SO not it! Whedon, playing to his strengths, not the least of which include TV ensemble-cast-juggling, crackling dialogue, and utter humanity shining through the most shopworn of genre situations, has slapped a Black Flag sticker on a really awesome Cadillac, and made both seem fresher and cooler than they have any real right to be. This is a testament to movie magic, and how no matter how familiar and contrived the endeavor may sound ahead of time, there are plenty of other ways to rock the summer.
A little voice inside my head said:
"Don't look back, you can never look back"
The summer is always good for at least few films of the "why did I bother to see this??" variety. With Snow White and the Huntsman, the second of two 2012 sub-par revisionist Snow White movies (not to mention whatever these newfangled fairy tale-mining TV series' such as "Grimm" and "Once Upon a Time" are up to) features Kristin Stewart as the perpetually scowling title maiden-turned-warrior. We all know this story, but this time, despite an upfront watchability, it's painfully clear in retrospect that this was a hollow and pointless big screen exercise. I went in more or less suspecting this. When it comes to revising dark and scary fairy tales for movie audiences, Walt Disney, for all his purification and sing-song accessibility that he brought to the table, worked ridiculously hard to successfully weave colorful and beautifully simple movie magic into the mix. (No one can simple concoct "movie magic", it has to happen organically. But Walt Disney is one who, in his early prime, came close to figuring out how to do it.) Disney's Snow White, being the first feature length animated feature film, was a historical game changer that is still cherished today. This Snow White was forgotten the week after it opened.
I thought I knew what love was
What did I know?
Those days are gone forever
I should just let them go but,
Rock of Ages. Hoo boy. This glossy, over-long and cookie-cutter "jukebox musical" (an adaptation of a somehow-popular Broadway show) appropriates all your favorite thread-bare 1980s hard-rockin' hits in its unrelenting effort to embarrass and humiliate its once-respectable cast (key supporting players include Paul Giamatti, Russell Brand, Alec Baldwin, and Catherine Zeta-Jones). The film would be completely dismissible for being the utter wrong-headed train wreck that it is if not for one other single factor: Tom Cruise. Cruise, as a mentally fried aging rocker called Stacee Jaxx, does more than just turn in a good performance in a bad movie, he almost single-handedly redeems the movie. He takes Rock of Ages from laughable to halfway respectable, to the degree that if I saw the film on someone's DVD shelf, I wouldn't have the knee-jerk negative reaction that I might otherwise have had. I suppose that last sentence might say more about me than it does about the film, but if so, here's another thought I've been perplexed by: What does it mean that, having seen both this and the debate-igniting, brain-bending Prometheus the same week, this is the film that, by far, I was more compelled to ponder? Rock of Ages is a genuine critical conundrum, very much both a huge stinkin' pile, and a can't-miss blast for the hair metal generation.
I can see you
Your brown skin shining in the sun
You got your hair slicked back and those
Wayfarers on, baby
Sorry Katy Perry, I also missed your movie, the 3D concert/documentary/career & divorce chronicle, Part of Me. Apparently, despite moderately decent critical buzz, I wasn't the only one. But don't cry - maybe one day, you, like our guy Don Henley, will perform a hit song about summer... Oh wait...
I can tell you my love for you will still be strong
After the boys of summer, have gone
Abraham Lincoln, I'll always love you like the greatest president that you are to me, but your last movie just didn't do it. Yes, we all know things are dark all over, and there have certainly been a number of genuinely dark civil war stories over the years that have been nonetheless moving. But Timur Bekmambetov's film Abraham Lincoln - Vampire Hunter was, in the end, simply... dreadful. But don't worry, Mr. President, Steven Spielberg is waiting in the wings to properly honor your legacy. Come mid November, Daniel Day-Lewis will put on the tall hat and become Lincoln - no ridiculous self-serious vampire nonsense necessary.
And with that, we're officially emancipated from the summer movie season. The song is over, the beach is empty, and apparently the multiplexes are even emptier. Even at the fever pitch of summer itself, with this overall middling-to-decent crop of would-be blockbusters (some that very much went the distance, others that fell short despite big efforts - valiant or otherwise) the final tally still isn't where Hollywood says it should be. Only The Avengers really delivered the refreshing thrills people were looking for. In a number of ways, it was all downhill from there, albeit with some terrific and/or interesting stops along the way.
Indeed, the summer movie season has come to represent something ... A certain something, a flair, that's time may've passed. Or at least we like to think it's passed. Innocence ... Wonder ... Unapologetic fun ... These are things that Hollywood seems to have all but forgotten, and we may not even realize that we need. This is not an argument for brainless movies, nor for more bland "family entertainment." I'm advocating that filmmakers look into what rare spice blend made The Avengers work. What rare cinematic chords made Toy Story 3 so splendid. Or even what childhood rawness made a couple of smaller 2012 summer releases rank as better than any of the more conventional blockbusters covered above. I'm talking about Beasts of the Southern Wild and Moonrise Kingdom. This is not the jaded film critic talking, it's a genuine lover of all kinds of film. In a summer full of dark ponderous bombast and overcooked self-examination, my heart and attention is with the children.
But, as it's been said, the more things change, the more they stay the same... Isn't that right, Ataris?